The Virtual Bookshelf: Letters to Power

Samuel McCormick, Letters to Power: Public Advocacy without Public Intellectuals (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2011). 

VB: McCormick HeadshotAlthough the scarcity of public intellectuals among today’s academic professionals is certainly a cause for concern, it also serves as a challenge to explore alternative, more subtle forms of political intelligence. Samuel McCormick’s Letters to Power accepts this challenge, guiding readers through ancient, medieval, and modern traditions of learned advocacy in search of persuasive techniques, resistant practices, and ethical sensibilities for use in contemporary democratic public culture.

At the center of Letters to Power are the political epistles of four renowned scholars: the Roman Stoic Seneca the Younger, the late-medieval feminist Christine de Pizan, the key Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, and the Christian anti-philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Anticipating much of today’s online advocacy, their letter writing helps would-be intellectuals understand the economy of personal and public address at work in contemporary relations of power, suggesting that the art of lettered protest, like letter writing itself, involves appealing to diverse, and often strictly virtual, audiences. In this sense, Letters to Power is not only a nuanced historical study, but also a book in search of a usable past.VB: McCormick Pizon 

In 2012, McCormick received the Everett Lee Hunt Award (given to a work that offers a “major contribution to the understanding of rhetoric and communication as a human function in the contemporary world; a means of explaining and realizing public responsibilities beyond the discipline of communication; and/or an intellectual and humane instrument for merging diverse fields of knowledge in a way that infuses them with moral purpose and public significance”) from the Eastern Communication Association for Letters to Power.

Robert Hariman notes that Letters to Power’s “skillful readings provide numerous insights regarding the predicaments and strategies shaping learned advocacy. By focusing on things small and sly, [McCormick] shows how public culture can be improved by careful thinkers doing humble work.”

Samuel McCormick is Assistant Professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. He studies rhetoric and public advocacy, especially as these topics intersect with broader issues in communication and social theory, intellectual and cultural history, and contemporary American civic life. His work has appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Philosophy & Rhetoric, Advances in the History of Rhetoric, and elsewhere.

Book site: